Having just hit 30,000 YouTube subscribers, I wanted to take a few moments to capture my journey. As a starting point, I never expected anyone to watch and I never intended the channel to “be a thing.”
Note: I’m writing this post mostly as a way to capture my current thinking and process my plan aloud. So, admittedly, the post is mostly for me, but I hope you’ll find it helpful, too!
Learning to Code
In May 2020, the world was in upheaval and I suddenly had a lot more time on my hands. A non-profit I was working with needed a website, so I told them I’d see what I could do. I’d built a few Wordpress and Squarespace sites in the past using templates, but I’d never built anything from scratch. With the extra time, I thought it would be fun to make something more custom.
My brother is a skilled web developer, so I asked for his help and he directed me to learning HTML and CSS as a starting point. He told me something that’s stayed with me since then: “You’ll either be bit by the coding bug or you won’t. There’s not a lot of in-between.”
I was bit hard and started building whatever I could get my hands on. For 6 months, I coded nearly every morning and evening. My brother had recommended trying to recreate websites I liked with just HTML and CSS. Building real things forced me to confront what I didn’t know or understand. And these real-world projects motivated and spurred on more learning.
This time, I called a friend from grad school. We were in the same program and studied a lot together once we found that we had a similar learning style and approach (in fact, he was the only person I ever studied with!). Several years before, he’d started learning web development and now owned a company that built websites for small businesses.
The Step to YouTube
Shortly afterwards, I was talking with another brother who was studying Computer Science in college. He was feeling stuck and frustrated by the slog of programming. I shared what Was said and encouraged him, “Just start recording yourself teaching what you’re learning in class. I think it’d really help you.”1 When I hung up the call, I thought, “I should do that, too!”
For nearly three years I’d worked part-time for a company as a User Education Specialist, writing articles and recording videos explaining their software. I had the gear (i.e., microphone, screenrecording gear, etc.) and the basic editing skills. So that week in February 2021, I recorded and uploaded my first video to YouTube. I told no one. I didn’t open analytics. I just kept learning and recording.
What Grew the Channel
I remember getting an email about my first sub and wondering how anyone found me. Somehow the YouTube algorithm landed me in more feeds, but it was slow growth. About 4 months in, I finally mentioned to my wife that I was recording and posting coding videos.2
In July 2021, Shaun Pelling from the Net Ninja YouTube Channel contacted me via Twitter. He’d seen my videos and wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing some guest content on his channel.
I was completely shocked! Should I tell him I’d only been coding for a year as a hobby! I think I gained around 1,000 subscribers in the first 12 hours after he posted the video. Since then, I’ve been on a steady growth trajectory. I’ve never had a video “blow up,” and I’ve never had a bigger spike than that first video with Shaun. For a while now, I’ve stayed steady at around 40 new subscribers a day.
It’s very fair to say that without Shaun, you wouldn’t be reading this post.
The Goal of My Channel
This story returns me to the title of this post: how focus led me to YouTube. I had one goal: learning to code.
I wasn’t trying to create a channel, be an influencer, or make money (not that any of those would be wrong). Since starting the channel, I’ve kept my head down and continued to learn. But this approach has led to a lot of questions:
- Should I be posting more often?
- Should I focus on more popular topics?
- Should I try to get sponsors?
- Should I try to get more subscribers?
- What area of web development should I focus on?
While these questions can have a scattering effect, they can also force you to define your focus.
Since my channel began, my focus has been singular: learning to code by teaching through my code. I don’t think I’ve ever created a project “just for the channel.” I’m always teaching through something I built or designed for myself, a friend, or in my learning process.
That being said, for the better part of a year, I’ve fought internal pressures to optimize for subs, money, and growth. I’m fairly confident I could get a lot more subscribers or views if I changed my approach. As a start, I could:
- Choose more popular topics
- Keep videos shorter and punchier (think Fireship)
- Post more often
- Add more interesting visual effects and animations
- Pursue large sponsors
- Pursue collaborations
The trouble with all of these “optimizations” is that they would take me away from coding or change the time allotment or nature of my learning. I could spend 4 hours adding fancy animations on a video and gain 2000 more views, but then I’d have less time to learn how to code that week. I could record more videos, choose more of-the-moment topics, or compress my videos, but it would fight against my purpose.
The power of my channel for my own journey has been this path: 1) learn something I want to learn 2) build it 3) record myself explaining it.3 To change my channel content or frequency would almost certainly require changing my learning path or making the two paths different.
I don’t currently have capacity to both continue learning how to code and also find time to record something entirely different for my channel.
The Future of Coding in Public
I recently heard a podcast episode with Nathan Berry, founder of ConvertKit. He noted three essentials for getting lucky: 1) relentlessly showing up, 2) continuously learning, and 3) teaching what you’re learning. My channel has been a stroke of luck, but it’s most certainly involved these three prerequisites.
There may be a day when my knowledge or time allows me to separate out my learning from the channel. For now, however, I’ve decided to stay true to my original intention. I find the pattern of learning and teaching so powerful and value it more than the growth of my channel.4
So, what will I be teaching through? I’m currently building out several Astro websites, so that will likely be my focus for the next bit.
That being said, I still have a lot to teach through. Many of the things I’m learning are still in early stages.5 Now that I have a few more people watching me, I try to wait to teach through something until I sense I have a good grasp of the topic. I’m not quite ready to explain many of these new-to-me languages, frameworks, or services in a way that’s helpful for others.
I’m excited to see how we continue on this journey. I would love to more openly surface my position as a learner, but don’t want to make the channel content about me. I’m still thinking through how to make it clear that I’m a learning without either undermining my teaching (i.e., making it sound like I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about) or making the channel about me.
Finally, thank you! People have been so kind to me on YouTube and I’ve grown so much both teaching and interacting with your suggestions for improvement. I’ve learned so much about coding from your comments and suggestions over the years and can’t wait to see what we can continue learning together.
Always a learner. Never the expert.
In that same conversation, I think I asked him to explain GitHub and commits to me, because I didn’t understand what they were! ↩
To this day, we don’t talk about the channel and I think only two other friends in life even know I have a channel. ↩
I’ll often change out text and images on a video to disguise the original project, but it’s always something I’m building for myself first. ↩
In fact, the times I’ve been most frustrated with my channel have been times of growth. ↩
For example, I’m currently still actively learning React and TypeScript. I’ve been using Firebase for nearly a year along with some MongoDB and other database solutions. And I’m building real things with them! For instance, this last week I spent ~15 hours building out a backend admin dashboard for a project using these tools. I’ve done a few small React videos on my channel, but I don’t think I’ve ever shared anything TypeScript or Firebase. I’m also exploring a bunch of the new CSS and JS tools or APIs and have been actively learning the new tools in Figma. So much to learn! ↩